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Review: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

July 8, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On opens with a tennis ball rolling around and bouncing down the stairs. We soon learn that our pint-sized protagonist Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate), a one-inch tall shell wearing pink sneakers who will steal our hearts over the next ninety minutes, is inside, and this is how he gets around the house where he lives.

Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, expanding upon the 2010 short films that he made with Slate and released online, the film is done in the form of a mockumentary with a meta bent to it; Fleischer-Camp plays himself as a documentary filmmaker named Dean who moves into an Airbnb following a breakup.

It’s here that he discovers Marcel, and decides to start filming his everyday adventures and observances of the world. Marcel used to live with his family and a large community of shells, until they all disappeared following an incident with the previous owners of the house. Now it’s just him and his Grandma Connie (Isabella Rossellini), who tends to her garden and the bugs who live there, but she is getting a bit forgetful and Marcel worries about her.

Fleischer-Camp’s film finds a careful balance whimsy and poignancy, letting the simple but meaningful story gently unfold. Marcel discovers more about the world around him after becoming a viral internet star through Dean’s videos, and dreams about a way to reunite with his family. The film is brought to life through stop-motion animation in a live action world, with Marcel and the other shells interacting with real surroundings. There is particular inventiveness in how Marcel gets around this space, from rolling inside the aforementioned tennis ball to stepping in honey to climb walls.

Weaving together elements of comedy, drama, arthouse film, and family movie, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is an entirely unique and often captivating piece of work that goes deeper than it might initially appear. The screenplay by Fleischer-Camp, Slate and writer Nick Paley offers a gently funny look at the daily adventures of a sentient shell, while also sensitively weaving in themes of loneliness, relationships, and moving on. The film is actually quite bittersweet at times.

Slate’s voice work perfectly captures the character’s inquisitive, childlike nature. Marcel’s non-sequiturs and observations on everyday life are not only charming and amusing, but his insights are also quietly profound at times in an A.A. Milne sort of way. The magic of Marcel, both the movie and the character, is that it reminds us to appreciate the little things in life by seeing them from a different perspective; in this case, the one googly eye of a small shell wearing shoes. What a delightful little film this is.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing in limited release at select theatres, including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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